Never mind politics. If you want to start an argument at the dinner table, bring up barbecue. No other American meal inspires such long-winded debate and fierce interstate rivalry. And now that the gastronomic icon has been co-opted by big-city restaurants and embraced by gourmands, itís become even more of a lightning rod. The fact is that plenty of places dump sauce on meat and call it barbecue. Some, however, serve the real thing and achieve—through a glorious alchemy of smoke, heat, and meat—something worth fighting over. Here are 12 spots worthy of a pilgrimage.

TEXAS

Smittyís, Lockhart, Texas
208 South Commerce, 512-398-9344; smittysmarket.com
Lockhart has two other temples of brisket and sausage (108-year-old Kreuz Market and septuagenarian Blackís), but the razor-thin edge goes to one that didnít exist until 1999. Thatís when Smittyís opened in the space Kreuz once occupied and fired up well-aged pits that produce unconscionably rich, tender brisket, not to mention juicy sausage and exemplary pork ribs. Ordered by the pound and served in slabs as thick as the slices of white bread it comes with, the beef is unceremoniously presented on brown butcher paper (a.k.a. your plate). Smittyís provides sauce, too, but regulars donít touch the stuff.

Cooperís Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, Llano, Texas
604 West Young Street, 325-247-5713; coopersbbq.com
Cooperís engages in two practices that some consider antithetical to the stateís trademark style: direct-heat cooking thatís dangerously close to grilling, and saucing. But this cowboy-style barbecue spot breaks the rules proudly, cooking meat about two feet from mesquite coals and then finishing it over low heat until you step up to the outdoor pits and point to what you want: extra-thick pork chops, sirloin, or beef ribs with Flintstones-esque bones protruding from meat riddled with melted fat. Itís all charred, pepper-flecked, and insanely good.

MISSOURI

LCís Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, Missouri
5800 Blue Parkway, 816-923-4484
Just a short drive from the original Arthur Bryantís, which Calvin Trillin famously anointed ďthe single best restaurant in the world,Ē is this unremarkable-looking institution, which might deserve that title for the burnt ends alone. A sloppy mound of L.C. Richardsonís luscious, slightly crispy chunks of beef brisket come covered in a thick, tangy sauce between two flimsy slices of white bread—itís a national treasure that LCís humbly calls a sandwich.

NORTH CAROLINA

Skylight Inn, Ayden, North Carolina
1501 South Lee Street, 252-746-4113
A swift, steady thwacka-thwacka provides the drawling locals and northern interlopers here with a soundtrack to their meal—a heap of pork thatís been hacked into pieces with two giant cleavers. The result—a mosaic of golden-brown skin and pink, juicy flesh served on a cardboard tray—is why Skylight is the champion of eastern North Carolinaís whole-hog-style barbecue. The only embellishment the meat needs is a touch of vinegar sauce.

Lexington Barbecue, Lexington, North Carolina
10 Highway 29-70S, 336-249-9814
In Lexington, where barbecue is religion, Lexington Barbecue is church. Its congregants bottleneck near the entrance, hoping to speed past the front counter to the wood-paneled dining room, where they all order pretty much the same thing: pork shoulder thatís been slowly smoked, roughly chopped, and piled in a too-tiny cardboard tray. Tinged red by mildly spicy, ketchup-kissed sauce, the meat is so superlative that youíd be forgiven for thinking that the patrons bowing their heads before tucking in are mumbling exaltations not to Him but to proprietor Wayne Monk.